Sylvester Mwamba Chisembele
Profile by Sophena Chisembele.
Minor edits by Eric Gondwe
Birth and educational background
The Hon. Mr Sylvester Mwamba Chisembele was born on 1st March 1930 in Fort Rosebery (Mansa) in a devout Catholic family, his father, Michael Filalo Chisembele having been both a Catholic teacher and lay preacher.
The Catholic Church in Mansa was established by his father Michael Filalo Chisembele and brother Romans Filalo Lupambo, a fact that was recognised and certified by His Holiness the Pope in Rome. The Requiem Mass for Michael Filalo Chisembele on the 7th March 1973 was officiated by the Archbishop of Kasama, His Grace Clement Chabu Kasansha, and in attendance were Archbishop His Grace Elias Mutale, then Bishop of Mansa; Archbishop His Grace James Spaita, then Vicar General of the Diocese of Mansa; Bishop R. Pilloux and among the other religious Fr. Jan Wessels. Bishop R. Pilloux, wrote to Sylvester Chisembele on the 20 May 1973 that:
“I have no doubt that your good father has received his reward in heaven. The priests of my generation will never forget that it was he and Ba Romano Lupambo who established the Catholic Church in Mansa, and that they did suffer in so doing. Whenever I think of them, they remind me of Paul and Timothy...”.
Chisembele began his primary education in Fort Rosebery and in 1942 entered Lubushi Seminary in the Northern Province where he completed Standard VI having done full six-year Latin courses. In 1948 he was asked to leave the Seminary as his questions on racial equality were considered to be too radical for that period in time. He left the Seminary and returned to Mansa.
As he could not immediately secure admission into Chikuni or Malole Secondary Schools he decided to run himself a business. This quickly grew and expanded and in due course enabled him to clinch a lucrative supply contract with A.J Patel of Ndola, supplying him with 50 x 90 kg bags of finger millet twice per week.
This trade alone brought him a net profit per month of £400 whilst at that time the highest salaries for white miners was not more than £200 while that for African miners was not more than £10 per month. He chose to invest in properties and in 1952 he successfully applied for a plot in Fort Rosebery Suburbs from the office of the district commissioner on which he constructed two buildings, a Restaurant and a Bakery.
He had also introduced Mikwau Fishing Nets on Lake Bangweulu where he established camps at Nganda and Sosa from which he supplied his restaurant with fresh fish for transportation on a motorcycle he had purchased for the purpose. The surplus was used for trading in Fort Rosebery and the Copperbelt.
So successful were Mr Chisembele’s enterprises that they drew the attention of the District Colonial Office and incurred the wrath of that office. He was successfully competing with the only other trader dealing in grains, a white man, Mr Steincamp, who was also delivering co-operative grains to Kitwe.
In order to guarantee the monopoly of this white trader, the District Commissioner sought to interfere and frustrate Mr Chisembele’s trade by confiscating his merchandise and blocking his deliveries to the Copperbelt. Police roadblocks were mounted to intercept Mr Chisembele’s hired lorry from Mporokoso District where he bought his grains and arrest him on trumped up charges and offload his grains into a police warehouse. The hired truck was sent on empty to Ndola and Mr Chisembele made to appear several weeks after before the Court of the same man, the District Commissioner, who had directed the impounding of the grains. Instead of making 32 trips in four months as per the contractual obligation producing a net profit of £1,600, he was reduced to making only 5 to 6 trips netting him only £250 or £300.
The harassment, frustration and strictures imposed on Mr Chisembele’s trading movements caused him pain and anguish prompting him to detest and hate the existence in the country of colonialism and anything about it. He strongly felt that indigenous people would only be recognized and treated with respect as human beings if they gained political control of the country and he prayerfully hoped that God would one day liberate the country “from the hands of such savages.”
For this reason, he joined the African National Congress (although the party had been banned in the Fort Rosebery District) and became one of Zambia's greatest fearless freedom fighters, who put his call to freedom fighting before his own personal life and family.
In 1953 the federation was imposed in central Africa and in the areas where chiefs had stood strongly against the imposition of the federation, territorial Governors were ordered by the federal Prime Minister to take stern action against those chiefs. So in Fort
Rosebery Senior Chief Milambo Chilyapa, Chief Mulakwa and Chief Kasoma Bangweulu were deposed and banished and taken as captives and restricted in other districts outside the province and politics were banned in Fort Rosebery. In Nyasaland (Malawi) Chief Philip Gomani who was old and sick but strongly opposed the federation was deposed and banished and he died in a foreign country a few months after his banishment.
By 1955, Mr Chisembele had organized a firm ANC base in Fort Rosebery (Mansa) using his own resources of money and buildings to further the cause of the freedom fight, and he spread out to Samfya. At Lubwe Mission with the full participation of Mr Sylvester Muchengwa and Mr Protasio Kamayanda, both leading personalities and leaders in the Catholic Church, the ANC spread rapidly and became so strong and powerful that by the time the District Commissioner, Mr North, came to know about it, it was too late to stop the spread of the party’s influence in the area.
The District Commissioner had no choice but to arrest Chisembele in 1956 along with three of this colleagues who were all sent to prison in Fort Rosebery and later transferred at the back of a lorry, in chains, to Ndola’s Bwana Mkubwa prison. They were imprisoned for 9 months with hard labour. They were released from the prison on acquittal in the Appeals court but after they had served the entire sentence. Upon their return, Mr Chisembele continued organising the ANC and was elected Provincial General Secretary of Luapula Province in 1957.
In 1958 Mr Chisembele was called to Lusaka to accompany the Party President Mr Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula, who wanted to tour Luapula Province. This move was applauded in the Province because National leaders were scared stiff to visit Luapula Province for fear of being arrested as Provincial Administrators in the province were notorious for arrests and imprisonment.
On their journey to Luapula Chisembele advised Mr Nkubula that he had overwhelming support in the province and that he should make a success of the tour. He said this because Mr Nkumbula was fearful of Provincial Administrators and would not stand at public gatherings unless he had seen a permit from the police with his name included.
At Chembe there was a huge crowd that came to welcome him and people were anxious to see Mr Nkumbula but he was afraid to come out of the car, saying that he would be arrested. Chisembele was most disappointed but climbed on the roof of the car to greet the people and tell them that the Party President was not feeling well. The same happened at Fort Rosebery Suburbs where a very large crowd was waiting to receive him but Mr Nkumbula disappointed them in the same way until they drove to the police station where the police said that he did not need a permit to just greet the people.
The tour was not a success and it became apparent that Mr Nkumbula was not strong enough to take the struggle to its logical conclusion. And so when there was a split in October 1958, people in the Province only made an about-turn and joined the Zambia African National Congress (ZANC) party.
There was no problem in taking them along as Mr Chisembele and his friends had very well organised the province politically. So organized that even colonial administrators were afraid of the nationalists who then controlled the province as people were more than ready to carry out a revolution in any way Chisembele would direct them. UNIP was built on the ashes of the ZANC, which the British colonial governor banned. It was eagerly supported and Chisembele’s administration of UNIP was exceptional.
Chisembele was Provincial General Secretary of the ANC in Luapula Province in May 1958 when there was an assassination attempt on his life by two security officers armed with two long batons leaving him permanently disabled with his right eardrum shattered and only partial hearing in his remaining ear. Severe and chronic headaches remained with him for the rest of his life.
On the 12 March 1959 Chisembele was arrested and detained at Kalabo, in the Barotse Province, now Western Province, for 9 months under the Restriction Order of Governor Sir Arthur Benson. In his absence, Chisembele’s 3-roomed Restaurant and 2-roomed Bakery were demolished on orders of the District Commissioner, Col. Middleton . All the property, equipment and building materials were taken away to the Public Works Department depot and he did not know what happened to them. He was not compensated for that loss.
In June 1961 Mr Chisembele together with his Deputy, Mr Evans Mulenshi, were arrested on a fictitious charge of harbouring explosives in the thatch roof of their homes. Following a public outcry and the intervention of the Catholic Parish Priest, Fr Clement Chabu Kasansha, later to become the Archbishop of Kasama, they were released but only after being detained in custody for three weeks.
Acknowledging that he was the lead author of the UNIP Five Point master Plan, the Governor of Northern Rhodesia, Sir Evelyn Hone, specially flew from Lusaka to Samfya to confer with Mr Chisembele. Mr Chisembele who had been in the remotest part of Samfya District in Senior Chief Kalasa Mukoso’s Chiefdom, where he had been organising, was summoned by the colonial administrator to meet the Governor at Samfya Boma, an honour and respect not extended to any other freedom fighter throughout the struggle for Zambia’s Independence. Shortly after this meeting, Mr Chisembele was arrested and detained.
Writing of Cha Cha Cha, freedom fighter Mr Nephas Tembo in his book on the freedom struggle published in 1984 describes the period of Cha Cha Cha as follows: “over seventy people lost their lives in this noble cause, the fiercest fighting having taken place in Luapula and Northern Provinces under the able leadership of Sylvester Chisembele and Andrew Mutemba.”
In July 1961, Mr Chisembele successfully organised the burning of the colonial identity cards commonly known as "Chitupas" throughout Luapula Province. It was the only province in Northern Rhodesia where it was completely successful. Chitupas were considered as “symbols of slavery”. For this, Chisembele was imprisoned for three months with hard labour in Milima prison in Kasama District.
Between 1956 and 1962 Mr Chisembele was many times imprisoned ranging from one month to three months for addressing meetings without a permit and on some occasions for addressing indoor meetings without a permit, although these meetings were of Party members and did not, by law, require any permit.
For further interest a quotation below is an excerpt from a book published by the Oxford University Press called `Zambia - The Politics of Independence 1957 - 1964' by David C. Mulford.
“...boycotting the Monckton Commission, gained wide acceptance in Luapula. ..................... Thus by the time Mr Chisembele, perhaps the most widely known and respected of Luapula’s ZANC restricted persons, returned to Fort Rosebery on 8 January 1960, bearing a duplicating machine and 1,000 new UNIP membership cards, an important advance had been achieved by UNIP in Luapula. Chisembele sent 500 cards to Kawambwa, began organizing UNIP branches and appointing delegates to UNIP’s forthcoming national executive meeting in Lusaka.....”
“...A security report from Luapula Province in September drew from the Chief Secretary the comment: ‘I don’t like the sound of UNIP’s ideas - they are learning too fast.’ The Governor agreed, and a few weeks later a meeting, which included Roberts, took place at Government House...”
“ Between April and December 1960 the total number of UNIP branches registered rose from 28 to 482 of these Luapula Province alone, accounted for 305 with an estimated membership of 69,000”
The British Government had acknowledged this capacity to organise politically as confirmed by Party President, Mr Kenneth David Kaunda of UNIP when he returned from the London Constitutional Talks. He announced in Chilenge at a Public Meeting that the British Government had rejected their demand for Independence now for Northern Rhodesia because the country was not yet politically organised. He said that they told him if the country was as organised as Luapula Province they could give us independence and that if Luapula wanted Independence she could have been given straightaway.
The fact that Mr Chisembele had so effectively structured Luapula Province to this highest degree of political organization prompted the UNIP National Council to select the Party President, Mr. K.D. Kaunda, to stand in the Luapula constituency in the ensuing controversial 1962 Ian McLeod 15, 15, 15 Constitution and Chisembele was asked to be his election Agent. Mr Chisembele asked Mr Kaunda to campaign for UNIP candidates in other provinces, since he, Mr Chisembele, was more than capable to deliver the seat to him and all the Luapula seats to UNIP.
Mr Chisembele was a democrat of great repute and distinction. At the earliest stages of freedom fighting he allowed democratic elections at all levels of the party under his domain. For this reason Luapula Province delegation at the UNIP Magoye Conference stubbornly opposed democratic centralism whereby political leaders were to be appointed by one man. Mr Chisembele registered that opposition in a fierce protest but as a professed democrat he accepted the pusillanimity of the rest of the provincial delegations. For this stance he was never pardoned and at Independence, notwithstanding his unequalled contribution to freedom fighting, he was invited into Government as a junior Minister to Mr. Elijah Mudenda who held the Agriculture Portfolio.
Service in Government
After Independence, Mr Chisembele served in many portfolios in government in different ministries and at Cabinet Minister level in various provinces. His irrepressible, confident leadership qualities imbued with his calm, modest, gentle and unassuming disposition made Mr Chisembele readily distinguishable as a potent and indispensable factor in conflict management and resolution, and an unrivaled peacemaker.
In 1966 a complex situation of unmitigated nature with capacity to ignite into a conflagration arose in Balovale District of North Western Province. Anxious and worried about the repercussion that was to result from the tension between the Lundas led by Mr Nkanza and the Lubales led by Mr Mbilishi the President sent Chisembele by government plane to resolve the problem. He spent two days in controversial meetings which if not properly handled would result in bloodshed as tempers were very high from both tribes.
The situation improved and the problem resolved and it was agreed that the name of the District be changed from Balovale to the name of the river which divided the District; so the name of the District and the Boma was changed to Zambezi.
Earlier on in 1965 the President decided to hold UNIP National Conferences in all provinces calling Provincial Conferences attended by all Members of the Central Committee and Cabinet and Junior Ministers. It was started in Luapula Province and after the address by the President and Cabinet Ministers came question time. One question was directed at the President concerning the future of the country economically and when the President replied the people were not satisfied. Members of the Central Committee started standing one by one but nobody managed to answer the people’s questions satisfactorily.
The situation started developing into a dangerous one and they started making noise and shouts of disappointment about the new government. Chisembele raised his hand and Members of Central Committee urged the Chairman to allow him to contribute, President Kaunda acceded and the Chairman after a long wait allowed him to contribute. Chisembele started by briefing the Conference on the background history of the struggle for Independence; where they were and how the future was planned. Before he wound up his contribution, the Conference started clapping and shouting with satisfaction and that was the end of the disturbance.
In 1968 general elections, the ruling party UNIP lost all seats in Barotse Province to opposition ANC. The best known names in politics e.g. Messrs Arthur Wina, Sipalo and Nalilungwe all lost to the opposition and President Kaunda reshuffled the entire leadership of the Province and Districts and sent the late Humphrey Mulemba as Provincial Minister and changed District Governors to try to win the Province back to the ruling party but they failed lamentably and Mr Mulemba was flown back to Lusaka as he became ill.
Chisembele was transferred from the Copperbelt to Barotse Province as Cabinet Minister in 1969. By 1970 he won back the province to UNIP and not only won back to UNIP but also had all the opposition M.Ps accept to cross the floor to UNIP e.g. Mr Mumbuna, Mr Nalumino Mudia and the rest., a feat that drew him congratulations from all his colleagues including telegrams of congratulations from Hon. Sikota Wina amongst others.
Chisembele asked President Kaunda to fly to Senanga where he had arranged a big rally to officiate at the function. For the first time peace was brought to the Province and set it up for economic development which had been stalled for a very long time. Chisembele attributed this achievement to the co-operation of His Royal Highness the Litunga, Mbikushita Lewanika who was a very understanding personality and also the support he enjoyed from his KUTA and the Ngambela SUU.
In March 1971 President Kaunda suspended Chisembele. The situation was quite confusing indeed. All later attempts by the President to appoint him as Senior Minister of State in the Office of the Prime Minister failed as Chisembele, a highly principled man could not accept an appointment unless he knew why he was suspended. After the period of suspension Chisembele returned the Minister of State’s salary back to the Ministry of Finance.
In 1974 President Kaunda appointed Chisembele as Cabinet Minister for Eastern Province and two years later transferred him to the Copperbelt Province in the same capacity.
Mr Chisembele was a highly principled man who throughout his political career shunned everything that had to do with corruption. Mr Chisembele never ceased to advise the country on national issues.
Retirement from politics
Mr Chisembele decided to retired from active politics in 1983 in order to secure his future and that of his family before he was too old to work. He felt that he had tried to the best of his ability to contribute to the liberation struggle, the Government and the building up of the Nation. He wished to concentrate on running his private businesses that included restaurants, The Garden Restaurant in Cairo Road, Lusaka; Ethel’s Restaurant in Cha Cha Cha Road, Lusaka; and Filalo Farm in Chisamba.
The farm was purchased in 1972 and heavily invested in, in terms of new infrastructure, renovations and farming equipment. During this period he was the largest indigenous poultry farmer in the country. An outbreak of Newcastle Disease persuaded him to expand his avenues of income and so he decided to invest into restaurants, which would also be outlets for his produce. This arrangement was very successful and enabled him to clear his farm mortgage and agricultural loans. He was always available to government for advice were it needed, but his forthrightness and stance against corruption was not always acceptable and made him enemies.
History repeated itself, from 1993 to 1997 both his restaurants were expropriated and his farm destroyed and repossessed by government. In October 2004 it was published in the press and stated in Gazette Notice No. 640 dated 22nd October 2004, that he had been awarded the Order of the Eagle of Zambia 4th Division, this was a lie. Mr Chisembele had refused to accept the Award, on principle, as he could not accept an Award from a Government that has persecuted him, confiscated his property and denied him his human rights. He had been promised that this fictitious Award would be de-gazetted, but all these issues he was still fighting up to the time of his tragic death.
Contribution to the Constitution process
Mr Chisembele had for the past months been studying and writing his contribution to the Constitution, a document which he completed writing although its distribution has not yet been finalised due to his ensuing ill health.
At the Newsmakers Forum organised by the Post Newspaper at Chrismar Hotel on the 20 November 2005, he emphasised the need to adopt the Constitution through a constituent assembly and for the new Constitution to be ready before the 2006 elections. He urged all Zambians to be courageous and fight for a new Constitution. He said a proper people driven constitution would solve most of Zambia's problems including corruption. He said cowardice was equal to stupidity. He said most problems Zambia faces were due to the one-man driven constitution.
In his final words at the forum, Mr Chisembele said:
"Zambians, be courageous and don't be afraid of participating and contributing to this crucial uttermost subject of changing the constitution. You have to do it Now or Never!!! Forward ever, backward never. May His Almighty God bless you and guide you and may He protect this country which is the only one we have, Zambia."
His illness, death and burial
Mr Chisembele started suffering ill health in October 2005 and his condition had not been fully diagnosed, despite undergoing several tests up to the time of his death, on the 5th of February 2006 in the UTH.
Mr Chisembele is survived by his wife, Sophena, together for 38 years, and three daughters, Bwalya, Christina and Mary.
The mourning and burial of this great National Hero were not acknowledged or attended by any Government representative or any active or serving politician. The usual tribute and respect paid to Freedom Fighters, Leaders of his stature, were denied.
SYLVESTER MWAMBA CHISEMBELE
1st March 1930 to 5th February 2006
Requiem Mass and Body Internment conducted by
His Grace the Archbishop of Kasama, James Spaita
St Ignatius Church, Lusaka, Zambia